Hosting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the White House this week for an official state visit, which represents the highest level of American diplomacy, necessitated President Joe Biden to navigate certain compromises, while also pushing Modi to venture beyond his familiar boundaries, even if only for a brief period.
Modi, who enjoys immense popularity in India, has displayed tendencies toward authoritarianism that have raised concerns in the West. He has implemented measures to suppress dissent, targeted journalists, and introduced policies that human rights organisations argue discriminate against Muslims.
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Nevertheless, Modi and India, as the world’s largest democracy, hold a pivotal position in Biden’s Asian strategy. India recently surpassed China as the most populous country on Earth. Biden believes that addressing significant global challenges, such as climate change and technological advancements, necessitates India’s involvement. Furthermore, given the current climate of escalating tensions between the United States and China, there are few allies that President Biden is more motivated to foster closer ties with than India.
According to officials, this was the reasoning behind extending an invitation to Modi for a state visit, which marks the third such visit during Biden’s presidency.
Press conference shocker
Consequently, on Thursday, the prime minister was greeted at the White House with the highest symbols of American friendship: a parade of troops on the South Lawn, extensive discussions in the Oval Office, and an evening state dinner featuring a chef specialising in plant-based cuisine to accommodate Modi’s vegetarian diet.
During a grandiose welcoming ceremony, President Biden emphasised, “I have always held the belief that the bond between the United States and India… will be one of the pivotal relationships of the 21st century,” thereby conveying his deep admiration for the friendship shared between the two countries.
Later, when the two leaders held a joint news conference, which had been the subject of intense negotiations between American and Indian officials, only Biden took questions from reporters. However, Modi, for one of the rare instances since assuming power, addressed a question about his suppression of dissent and treatment of religious minorities.
Modi responded through a translator, stating, “There’s absolutely no space for discrimination. “When discussing democracy, it is essential to recognize that without core human values and a commitment to humanity, the concept of human rights cannot exist, thereby undermining the essence of democracy itself.”
This was a remarkable moment for a leader who typically avoids press conferences, refuses to answer questions from the press, and has rarely participated in international interviews. Press freedom organisations claim that he has overseen a crackdown on journalistic freedoms.
The format of the news conference was only agreed upon after extensive and delicate negotiations between the two sides. Initially, Indian officials were hesitant about the White House’s insistence on holding a news conference, according to two US officials familiar with the matter.
In response to a question about Modi’s human rights record, Biden emphasised the shared values between the United States and India. President Biden highlighted, “The prime minister and I engaged in a fruitful discussion regarding the significance of democratic values. Our relationship is characterized by open and honest communication, as well as mutual respect.” He further reiterated his belief in the inherent dignity of every individual, emphasizing that this value is deeply ingrained in both the United States and India. President Biden underscored the shared commitment to democracy as a basis for their partnership and their ability to promote democratic institutions globally.
During Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the White House, President Biden emphasized the vital role of shared values in shaping the bilateral relationship between the two nations. He stated, “As democracies, we are better equipped to harness the full potential of our people and attract investments as reliable and trustworthy partners. We stand as leading nations, showcasing the power of our example.” President Biden emphasized core principles such as equal treatment under the law, freedom of speech, religious pluralism, and the celebration of diversity, which have endured and evolved throughout the histories of both countries, contributing to their strength and shaping their shared future.
The meetings on Thursday resulted in agreements on technology and defence cooperation, demonstrating Biden’s efforts to strengthen relationships in a region dealing with an increasingly assertive Beijing. The on-going conflict in Ukraine involving Russia, on which India has not taken a definitive stance, was also discussed. India’s continued purchase of Russian oil has helped support Moscow amidst extensive global sanctions.
US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan highlighted the belief that the long-term trajectory of the US-India relationship is based on the idea that two democracies with shared values should be able to collaborate. He emphasized the deep ties between the people of the United States and India, which will be celebrated during the visit.
Biden’s gamble with Modi
It is true that inviting leaders with authoritarian tendencies for state visits at the White House is not unprecedented. Former President Barack Obama hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping shortly after he assumed power in Beijing in 2015. Additionally, former President Donald Trump embraced Modi and attended the “Howdy Modi” rally in Houston, while Modi reciprocated with the “Namaste Trump” event in Ahmedabad.
Other world leaders, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, have also welcomed Modi as a guest of honour at events like the Bastille Day parade. However, for President Biden, the battle between “democracy and autocracy” has become a central theme of his foreign policy, making it particularly relevant in the case of India.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Prime Minister Modi’s leadership has encountered scrutiny from human rights organizations and opposition politicians due to its Hindu nationalist agenda and the perceived suppression of dissent. Modi himself was denied a visa to the United States in 2005 due to allegations of his involvement in anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat state. However, a Supreme Court-ordered investigation in India absolved him of blame.
There has been a significant call from human rights groups, lawmakers, and dissidents for Biden to raise concerns about Modi’s record during their meeting at the White House. Over 70 congressional Democrats wrote a letter to Biden urging him to address human rights concerns, emphasizing the importance of applying these principles to both friends and foes to uphold the credibility of American foreign policy.
The letter, spearheaded by Rep. Pramila Jayapal and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, highlighted the need to protect press freedom, religious tolerance, internet access, and political diversity. It is worth noting that three members of Congress, Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have stated their intention to boycott Modi’s address to Congress as a protest against his treatment of Muslims.
A coalition in the making, challenging China
During Thursday’s state visit, several announcements were made in the technology and defence sectors, highlighting the deepening military ties between the United States and India. The discussions focused on defence sales, production, and technology collaboration, with India committing to the purchase of MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones, strengthening their defence capabilities amid concerns over an assertive China.
In the defence trade space, US officials have noted India’s efforts to diversify its arms procurement away from relying solely on Russia. Major cancellations of defence system purchases from Russia were mentioned, partly due to concerns about Russia’s own defense production being strained by the war in Ukraine and potential supply chain issues.
The visit also included agreements in other areas. India joined the US-led Artemis Accords, an international cooperative agreement for space exploration, and announced a joint mission with NASA to the International Space Station in 2024. Additionally, US-based semiconductor producer Micron Technology committed to establishing a new semiconductor assembly and test facility in India with an investment of $2.75 billion.
The discussions between Biden and Modi also covered enhancing educational exchanges and expected progress on visas and diplomatic presence in both countries. The G20 summit, which India is set to host in September, was another topic of discussion.
Biden’s efforts to deepen ties with India come in the context of growing concerns about China’s influence. The revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and Biden’s meetings with Modi demonstrate a shared commitment to upholding international rules in the face of China’s assertiveness. Although the visit was not solely focused on China, discussions regarding China’s role in the military, technology, and economic domains were anticipated.
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan clarified that the visit was not primarily about China, but acknowledged that China’s role would be on the agenda, considering its impact on various domains.
Accusations of democracy erosion shadow Modi
Hosting Prime Minister Modi, President Biden found himself standing alongside a leader who enjoys immense popularity in India but has also been criticised for sidelining challengers, co-opting judicial systems, and consolidating power. This consolidation of power has raised concerns among observers and critics about the erosion of democracy in a country that recently surpassed China to become the world’s most populous.
Over 70 Democratic lawmakers wrote a letter to President Biden, urging him to prioritize upholding democratic values and human rights in his discussions with Prime Minister Modi. Critics have drawn attention to concerning developments in India, which encompass a contraction of political freedoms, an escalation in religious intolerance, allegations of targeting civil society organisations and journalists, and an increase in constraints on press freedoms and internet access.
Under Prime Minister Modi’s leadership, India has become a precarious place for its more than 200 million religious minorities. Right-wing vigilante supporters have fuelled religious tensions with the goal of establishing Hindu supremacy in a country that is constitutionally secular. This has created a volatile environment, particularly for India’s Muslim population.
In March, Rahul Gandhi, the prominent leader of India’s opposition and Modi’s chief political rival, was convicted of defamation and sentenced to two years in prison. Although Gandhi has filed an appeal and remains free, the conviction provided an opportunity for Modi’s allies to remove him from the country’s Parliament.
Becoming Prime Minister in 2014, Modi was banned from entering the US due to allegations of his involvement in anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002, during his tenure as chief minister of the state. The ban was lifted after he assumed office.
Critics accuse Modi of stifling dissent and exerting control over independent institutions, with the ban on the BBC documentary on the 2002 riots being cited as an example. Human rights groups raise concerns about his government’s agenda influenced by far-right Hindu nationalism.
The US State Department, in its annual report on religious freedom, expressed concern about the situation in India, citing calls for genocide against Muslims, lynchings, and attacks on places of worship. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has repeatedly called for India to be designated as a “country of particular concern.”
While Modi’s human rights record has been criticised, some experts argue that the focus on cooperation with India is driven by the need to counter China’s global influence, leading human rights concerns to be side-lined in strengthening ties with India.